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Dancing With the Le Pens

Believe it or not, France's local elections resemble a high-stakes reality TV show. But the biggest loser could be the Fifth Republic.

France's far-right National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen (L) gestures as her father and party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen (R) applauds during a May Day rally in Paris on May 1, 2014. AFP PHOTO / PIERRE ANDRIEU (Photo credit should read PIERRE ANDRIEU/AFP/Getty Images)

In an interview on the news show Le Grand Rendez-vous on March 8, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced: “I am afraid for my country.” His reason? The looming “national disaster” in the forthcoming local elections, which polls suggest will be dominated by the extreme right wing National Front (FN). The following day, Valls took to the airwaves again to discuss the national psyche. But this time his despair was over the death of three famous French athletes who had died in a mid-air helicopter collision during the filming of “Dropped,” the French reality show modeled after “Survivor.” The country mourned the disaster, Valls said.

In the wake of the tragic accident, TF1, the network that carries “Dropped,” cancelled the remainder of its season. Perhaps Valls, whose Le Grand Rendez-vous interview “flopped” in the eyes of many observers, wishes he could do the same for the elections, which will be held in two stages on March 22 and 29. But the political show must go on — and as it lurches towards its own climax, it oddly resembles a fiercely competitive and stunningly dangerous reality show: Just as a survival show must ratchet up the potential disasters facing its intrepid contestants in order to keep its audience, some critics suspect that Valls is doing the same in a desperate bid to keep his Socialist party alive in the election. But there’s a crucial difference: In the election, the survival of more than a handful of celebrities is at play. Instead, it is the Republic itself.

France’s departmental elections hardly seem the stuff of drama. In the wake of 1789, French revolutionaries remade the map of France, erasing the irregular borders that defined its several provinces and replacing them with départements. True to the rationalist spirit of the age, the départements were all of roughly the same size and governed from Paris. Two centuries later, these 96 départements remain the basic administrative units of France, but their powers have largely shifted to the regions, which were resurrected by recent governments. The primary duties of these historical fossils now revolve around the management of a few social programs and maintenance of the roads.

While the real powers exercised by these local officials are small-bore, a strong FN showing will have seismic consequences. The symbolic charge of victory for the far-right party in even a couple of départements will echo across the national media. No less important is the fact that the FN was able to present candidates in the vast majority of departmental races, which has already helped the party to lay the administrative foundations for a movement with much greater ambitions. Rather than an FN limited to a few strongholds, the frontistes will have a national profile. It is not surprising that a growing number of political commentators — and not just writers of dystopian fiction like Michel Houellebecq — now consider the prospect of a Marine Le Pen victory in the 2017 presidential election all too real.

Since her ascension to the FN’s leadership, Le Pen has sought to transform the party’s character and broaden its appeal. Under her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the FN was a magnet for neo-Nazis, militant Catholics, racists, and anti-Semites. Less a politician than a performer, Le Pen père was a foul-mouthed jester for whom politics was a stage on which to shock, not a means to govern. (Think: Donald Trump, but with a background in the rough and tumble of Paris street politics, not New York real estate.)

Le Pen fille, however, seeks legitimacy and power, not scandal and headlines. Under her rule, most Holocaust deniers and anti-Semitic ideologues (like the notorious polemicist Alain Soral) have been pushed out, while a few (like her father) were pushed upstairs into honorary positions. With her eyes on the prize, Marine Le Pen has staffed the party with individuals whose qualifications are founded on political acuity, not ideological purity.

And significant taboos have since been broken. Louis Aliot, one of the FN’s vice presidents (as well as Le Pen’s live-in partner), is of partial Jewish descent, as is David Rachline, the first FN member to win a seat in the Senate. Late last year, the French magazine Closer revealed that another vice president, Florian Philippot, is gay. While Philippot has not publicly come out, Le Pen is clearly indifferent to her advisor’s sexual orientation. The traditionalists in her party scarcely had the time to digest the news about Philippot when they learned that Le Pen had enlisted Sébastien Chenu, the founder of the conservative gay activist group GayLib, as her cultural advisor. A joke making its way around social media was whether it was more awkward to come out as gay in the FN or as a frontiste in the gay community.

Here’s an even trickier question, though: Is it more difficult for a frontiste to come out as a republican or a republican to come out in the FN? Marine Le Pen insists on her party’s republican values, particularly the strict separation between religion and state, and the protection of private and public liberties. Of course, these particular values mesh seamlessly with the FN’s hostility towards Islam. In her speeches, Le Pen distinguishes between “French Muslims” and “Islamic fundamentalists,” but she astutely fudges the line. For example, when a reporter from Al Jazeera asked her if Islam is incompatible with French values, Le Pen left the question hanging: “There are some who believe that secularism and Islam are not compatible…It’s up to [Muslims] to show you can be French and Muslim and still respect secular rules.” It hardly matters that the vast majority of France’s five million or so Muslim citizens have done precisely that. Le Pen’s distinction between good and bad Muslim is, for many in her camp, without a difference.

The magazine L’Obs analyzed the websites of the thousands of FN candidates in the upcoming election and the results are sobering. Several dozen FN candidates trail behind them tweets and posts larded with anti-Semitic, anti-black, and anti-Muslim slurs. “Banks control the world, Jews control the banks, and Jews have license to assassinate,” tweeted Jérémy Aycart, the FN candidate from the Haute-Vienne. Thierry Kern, running for a seat in the Haut-Rhin, declared: “We’ve got to rid ourselves of these f—- Muslims,” while a third candidate, Marc-Antoine Andréani, from the Loir-et-Cher, Photoshopped a praying Muslim being buggered by a pig.

No doubt Le Pen, who insists she will treat these cases with “absolute firmness,” wishes these candidates had never crawled out from under their rocks and into the spotlight. But it’s too late. This is the party that she leads. As Bruno Gollnisch, the leader of the party’s old guard, recently insisted, even if the party is under new management, the “essence of the Front National is still there.” This essence, explained Gollnisch, includes “maintaining our French identity, restoring public security, reversing immigration trends [and] challenging those whose religious convictions have them behave in ways that do not conform to French traditions.” Though Gollnisch chose his words carefully, it does not take a great leap of imagination to interpret them as license to compare, as one former FN candidate did, Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, who hails from French Guiana, to an ape.

In his heyday, when Jean-Marie Le Pen dismissed the Holocaust as a “detail of history” or rhymed a Jewish politician’s last name with the ovens at Auschwitz, the FN’s critics described the comments as “dérapages,” slipups or, literally, skids. But these days it’s a new dérapage every week, so many skids that France’s public discourse resembles a rhetorical demolition derby. As Taubira drily remarked a few days ago, “those who skid are not skidding, but confessing.” Echoing this insight, political scientist Thomas Guénolé observed that these are not slipups at all, but LePenism, pure and simple. By this, Guénolé means a constellation of beliefs associated with Jean-Marie Le Pen whose racist and reactionary nature are fundamentally anti-republican.

Given the words and actions of the FN, it’s no wonder that Prime Minister Valls is agonizing over his country’s future. Why, then, the chorus of criticism following his interview? For some, especially those on the Left, Valls’s histrionics are an effort to distract the Socialist rank and file from the government’s economic policies. Its modest efforts to liberalize labor laws have alienated not just the Greens and Communists, but also several dozen Socialist deputies. Known as the frondeurs, or rebels, last month they refused to vote for their government’s proposed legislation that would undo one of the grand shibboleths of the French Left: allowing department stores to open on Sundays. This explains the sharp editorial in the Communist Party newspaper L’Humanité, which lambasted Valls’s “heavy-handed diversionary tactics” to hide his government’s “treason towards the working class.”

The Right is equally dubious about Valls’s motives. They suspect that, rather like the producers of reality shows like “Dropped,” Valls is doubling down on the challenges and risks in order to increase his audience — or, in this case, his voters. In Le Figaro, columnist Yves Thréard declared that Valls’s banging of the tocsin “sounds hollow,” while the newspaper Midi-Libre pronounced that the prime minister was “crying wolf.”

The Socialists’ only hope of surviving this reality show requires forging some alliances. But that’s looking increasingly unlikely. It appears that the center-right Union for a Popular Movement party (UMP) will refuse, as it did in a critical by-election last month, to form a common “republican front” with the Socialists between the first round of voting this Sunday and the following week’s second round. According to the most recent polls, the Socialists will be lucky to win 20 percent of the vote on Sunday, with the FN poised to win 31 percent and the UMP about 29 percent. These two parties will face off in the second round a week later, while the Socialists will be voted off island. Whether France can survive the rest of the season remains to be seen.


Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.


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